The “Bad Memories” Fallacy*

*Note: there will be footnotes. 

There’s a big mistake almost everyone makes when it comes to comforting people who are going through a hard time. I’ve made it. You’ve probably made it–probably more than once–without ever meaning to or realizing it.

Here’s the scenario: you are are worried about a friend, family member, or colleague that has recently gone through/is going through something really awful. You think “I’d like to reach out and offer my support.” But then you follow that thought with “Oh, but I don’t want to stir up any bad memories for them, so I probably just shouldn’t say anything.”

First of all, I am happy to say that I have good news for you. If you’ve ever had this thought, it means that you are a kind person who is concerned with the wellbeing of others, and that you care enough to want to help and not make things harder for someone having a hard time. And that is admirable.

Unfortunately, despite your best intentions, this line of thinking/inaction often makes people who are already having a hard time feel even worse. Avoiding talking to a person about something that has disrupted their life in a big way—even when it’s well-intentioned and coming from a place of care—results in further isolation, loneliness, and emotional pain for the one who is suffering.**

Speaking from personal experience, when truly painful and upsetting things happened to me, I was, on some level, never not thinking about it. I have not have a single day go by recently during which I forgot that my mom died, that my friend died, or that I had a miscarriage. It’s always there, even when I’m not actively thinking about it. And when someone approaches me and brings it up with the intention of offering comfort and support, my emotional reaction is almost*** always “Oh thank goodness, I get to say  all these things I’m feeling out loud and have them acknowledged, what a relief.” Never ever not once has my reaction been “What are you talking about? My mom didn’t die, she’s at home right now…wait, oh god, it’s all coming back to me…I had it all wrong, she did die…oh dear god no…why…Why?…Why did you say this!?!?! THIS HAS BROUGHT UP HORRIBLE MEMORIES FOR ME THAT I’D TUCKED AWAY LIKE A SQUIRREL HIDING NUTS FOR THE WINTER AND NOW I CAN NO LONGER ESCAPE THE AWFUL REALITY BECAUSE OF YOU!!!

Okay, so now you’re thinking that you’d like to stop falling prey to the Bad Memories Fallacy (™ pending) and start offering words support to someone that you care about who needs them. You might now be having a few different reactions to the thought of this undertaking. You might be thinking, “I am great face-to-face with folks and always know what to say!” or maybe, “Oh god I am terrified of saying the wrong thing, but I want to say something and please dear god don’t make me do it in person. Or on the phone.” So here’s a handy-dandy list of suggestions to fit a range of strengths and preferred methods of communication:

  • Schedule a phone call or hang-out with the person and then say something like, “Hey, I know something’s been going on and I’m worried about you. I’d be happy to be a listening ear, or just to provide some distraction. Whatever you need in this moment.”
  • Approach the person during a private or quiet moment in your workday and offer a simple, “I just wanted to say that I heard about [insert what happened] and that I’m so very sorry. You’re in my thoughts.” And if you’re feeling extra capable and fancy you can add a, “If you’d ever like to talk about it, I’d be happy to listen.”
  • Say to them “Hey, I feel incredibly awkward and have no idea what the right thing to say is, but I just wanted you to know I’ve been thinking about you so much.” It is AMAZING how meaningful it can be to just be completely honest and say the thing that you feel. Chances are? They feel awkward too! And will appreciate that despite your fear of messing up, you had the courage to offer your support.
  • Send a card to their home or leave on one their desk, on their door, etc. This option has a bonus: you don’t even have to know what to say because you can buy a card that already says it for you. There are lots of sympathy cards that are really well written and great. I myself have deployed the sympathy card option on many occasions to great effect. Added bonus: cards can be kept, and re-read whenever needed (I have a stash of particularly meaningful sympathy cards that I re-read when I’m feeling blue).
  • Send the person an email, Facebook message, DM on any other platform, or text. There are people who will tell you that it is inappropriate to express these kinds of things via electronic communication. Those people are wrong (and probably say things like, “Kids these days!”). Reach out with a message or text that says something like, “Hey, you’ve been in my thoughts so much lately, and I just wanted to let you know how much you mean to me and that I’m here for you if you need anything.” Getting texts like those have, at times, been a life-line when I felt like I was drowning.
  • Still overwhelmed by the idea of making words of any kind to express your feelings? A small token, like some flowers, a gift certificate to a cafe they like or for a luxury service, a little piece of art or poetry that made you think of them, or even a mini muffin is a fabulous offering. You can add a card that says “Thinking of you” or just has a heart drawn on it if you want. Or you can even give it anonymously! No matter what, I promise you that it will be appreciated and that you will have a positive impact on their day.****

What I’m trying to say is, no matter how you express your concern and your care and condolences, express them. It doesn’t matter if you know what to say, or if you feel awkward, or out of your depth, or afraid of making things worse. And I guarantee that you won’t be bringing up Bad Memories™ because they are not memories. They are just that person’s reality. And that person could use a little love and support. Couldn’t we all?

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

**Before I go any further, I need to put in a big caveat: not all people are the same. And I’m sure that somewhere there is someone for whom the best and most loving care and attention would be to ignore whatever has happened to them and to carry on like everything is normal. But it is my experience that these people are in the vast minority. In fact, I’ve never met them. (Which doesn’t mean that they don’t exist! It takes all kinds.)

***Yes, there are moments when having an emotional moment and crying with someone aren’t preferable. For example, I would not welcome the “Heeeeey, I’m so sorry about your miscarriage. How are you doing?” right before, say, walking on stage to present a slide deck to a thousand investors or something. It’s important to pick an appropriate time to offer condolence (or, more accurately, to avoid doing it at an inappropriate time.)

****Okay so there’s one instance in which I can’t actually promise this: if you are super creepy and/or give a gift that’s overly extravagant or otherwise inappropriate and that makes them feel uncomfortable. Giving someone a bar of chocolate or a small bouquet of hand-picked flowers with a, “You’re in my thoughts” note? Lovely. Buying them a Tiffany’s diamond necklace or a new refrigerator with a, “This reminded me of your sadness” note? Confusing and weird. If you wonder whether your gift is a good idea, jut run it by a couple other people. If they look at you with confusion and horror, get thee to a therapist immediately.

You know what sucks? Miscarriage.

I recently added two big things to the list of major emotional milestones I’ve gone through in the last year: my first pregnancy, and my first miscarriage.

As these things sometimes go, I miscarried 4 days before my father’s birthday. 5 days before the one year anniversary of my mom’s death. And 6 days before Valentine’s day, which would have been the day we had our first ultrasound to see a heartbeat. While it wasn’t precisely the worst timing possible…it was close.

There were 17 days when I knew I was pregnant, then a interminable night of bleeding and cramping where I was terrified I was miscarrying, then a day and a half when I was hoping that I was overreacting, and then the doctor’s appointment where it was confirmed that I was, indeed, no longer pregnant.

I told my father I was pregnant about 5 minutes after seeing the big blue + on the pregnancy test–he’s a retired OB/GYN and is a great insider to have on your pregnancy team. I told my close friends the week after finding out–my math was “Do I need this person to know if I have a miscarriage?” More than half my friends who have children have had miscarriages. 3 days before I miscarried we told my in-laws that I was pregnant, and there was laughter and hugs and tears. The day before I miscarried we had told a handful of people: a brother, a grandma, an aunt and uncle, some close family friends. That night, it happened, and the next morning I called my dad and told him, expecting his usual calm and reassuring bedside manner. Instead, he cried.

Then was the administering of the pills that would help my body release the no-longer-a-fetus from my uterus, and the waiting for the chills, and severe cramping, and bleeding. There was a second dose of pills the following day, and then another ultrasound a couple days later to show that yes, the no-longer-a-fetus was no longer in my uterus.

That was almost 4 weeks ago. And, as it turns out, the fun isn’t over yet. My body has been very slow to let go of being pregnant, and my hormone levels have remained high enough for me to get a positive result from a pregnancy test (which resulted in a very confused few days) and I have had more ultrasounds and blood tests than you can shake a stick at. Who knew *not* having a baby would be so complicated, cost so much, and take so long?

And right now I simply waiting. Waiting for my hormone levels to drop enough that I will begin to ovulate again, and we can give it another go and hope for the best.

One of the things that struck me most about this experience was that it was not as devastating as I thought it would be. It was very sad, and there was about a week when I barely got off the couch and didn’t leave the house, but it wasn’t a horrible sadness. Just a quiet disappointment. In a way there was almost a small measure of relief of “Oh, this thing that I was so terrified was going to happen has happened, and I am going to be alright.” Maybe it’s because it was still so early in the pregnancy (just a day shy of 7 weeks) that I hadn’t seen an ultrasound or heard a heartbeat or begun to feel like it was real. But probably mostly because I have so many friends with happy, healthy babies, who also had miscarriages.

And that leads me to the most remarkable thing of all about this experience. My husband and I have told many people about the miscarriage–many more than we told about the pregnancy in the first place. When people have asked “Hey, how are you?” we’ve been largely transparent about what’s happening and how we are doing. And the percentage of people who responded to the news of our miscarriage with either “Oh, we had a miscarriage too, before our first was born” or “My mom had a miscarriage before she got pregnant with me” was easily over 75%. The vast majority of people we spoke to had either had a miscarriage or had talked to their mom about hers.

So if most of us have gone through this or know someone who has, why don’t we talk about it more often? When I told one friend she responded with “You know, most women have miscarriages, which is why people generally don’t tell people about their pregnancy early on.” And I was deeply confused by this statement–most people have this experience, so we don’t talk about it? That seems so backwards to me. I understand (from experience) that telling people “Oh, just kidding, we’re not having a baby” really sucks, but to me, that doesn’t mean that we should all stick with the norm and keep pregnancies a secret until past the first trimester. Who are we protecting by hiding our failed pregnancies? And wouldn’t we all be better prepared for the likelihood of miscarrying ourselves if we heard more about how often it happens?

Until next time,

The Cry Babe